Roger Kimball: A Voice in the Cultural Wilderness

In some 21 essays, Roger Kimball -- author of seminal books like Tenured Radicals and The Long March, editor of the The New Criterion, and publisher of Encounter Books -- lays out a general indictment of what we might loosely call “modernism” in the West. By that term, Kimball means the rejection of over two millennia of classical values that accelerated following the horrors of World War I, and which came to full fruition in Europe and the United States after the catastrophe of World War II, before crystallizing in the 1960s amid the social upheavals sparked by the Vietnam War.

To understand what had been lost in the 20th century West, a critic would have to be a literary scholar. He should be intimately familiar with art and attuned to popular culture. He would also have to be knowledgeable about classical music and the reactions to it, conversant with European tastes, and acquainted with subjects as diverse as economics, political science, and architecture. Few observers other than Kimball are, so his multifaceted and deeply learned lamentation deserves a wide readership -- not just for his accurate diagnoses, but also for the singularly learned manner in which he offers antidotes and prognoses.

For Kimball, the culprits for our decline are obvious and fall roughly into a few categories: cultural relativism, or the all-encompassing idea that there are no longer any permanent or absolute criteria by which we might assess anything as either excellent or poor; multiculturalism, the doctrine that non-Western cultures cannot be judged by Western values and therefore are exempt from the sort of censure that is routinely employed by Western critics in reference to their own societies; utopianism, the notion that man is perfectible with proper training, plenty of money, and a coercive enough government run by enlightened elites; and liberal elitism that results when large numbers of well-off Westerners are able to divorce themselves from, and thus are ignorant about, the grubby mechanisms that account for their wealth, and so can indulge in ideas whose pernicious cargoes have no direct consequences to themselves.

In all these pathologies, Kimball sees the common denominator of enforced radical egalitarianism, or the human impulse to make us all the same, which for many trumps the desire for liberty and individualism. To paraphrase Aristotle and Tocqueville, Kimball is appalled at a certain human weakness that expresses itself in a willingness to become enslaved as the price of ensuring equality -- as if by nature we value egalitarianism far more than liberty.

Given that the first four years of the administration of Barack Obama can be fairly summarized as a quest for an enforced equality of result, Kimball’s essays take on an urgency not usually associated with cultural and literary criticism. In Kimball’s essays, one can see how the pernicious work of a writer, social critic, artist, or philosopher provides the intellectual means to a political end and ultimately distills into state policies: like implementing the Dream Act by executive fiat; dissimulating about the actual circumstances of the murders in Libya; or misrepresenting the nature and cost of federalized health care to force its passage through Congress on a narrow partisan vote.